Why is Southeast Asia so concerned about Aukus and Australia’s plans for nuclear submarines?
- Many think there is no such thing as acquiring nuclear-powered submarines without the prospect of acquiring nuclear weapons in the future
- There are also fears Australian nuclear-powered submarines will change the dynamics in the South China Sea, though some governments appear to welcome any re-balancing against China
The Afghanistan debacle has left a bad taste among many Indo-Pacific countries, and some are wondering if the timing of the Aukus announcement was intended as a show of US power in the region to reassure jittery partners.
Fear of a nuclear arms race
To understand the deep anxiety in Kuala Lumpur, Jakarta and other Asean capitals requires some context on where they are coming from.
First, many of them think there is no such thing as acquiring nuclear-powered submarines without the prospect of acquiring nuclear weapons in the future.
Australia has not joined the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons, which requires parties to agree not to develop, test, produce, acquire, possess, stockpile or threaten to use nuclear weapons.
The Morrison government says the treaty would be inconsistent with its alliance with the US, a nuclear weapon power.
However, Australia did ratify the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons in 1973 and the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty in 1998. And Prime Minister Scott Morrison said last week Australia had “no plans” to pursue nuclear weapons.
Both Indonesia (the unofficial leader of Asean) and Malaysia fear Aukus will also lead to a major arms race in the wider Indo-Pacific region.
US, UK, Australia announce ‘historic’ military partnership in Pacific
The potential for conflict in South China Sea
The Asean nations have always preached maintaining Southeast Asia as a “zone of peace, freedom and neutrality”, free from interference by any outside powers. In 1995, the member states also signed the Treaty of Southeast Asia Nuclear Weapon-Free Zone, which committed to keep nuclear weapons out of the region. Not a single nuclear power has signed on to it.
Although everyone knows China, the US, Britain and France have ignored these protocols by manoeuvring armed warships through the South China Sea – not to mention China’s building of military bases on disputed islands there – Asean does not want to see this number grow.
The region has always insisted on the idea of “Asean centrality” in their relations with the world – that Asean members must decide what is best for Southeast Asia – but as Aukus shows, nuclear nations play a different game.
Indonesia is especially unhappy with Australia given the new agreement will affect it directly, given their common maritime border.
Is there anyone happy about the deal?
While in public, most Southeast Asian governments have expressed uneasiness with Aukus, there is a school of thought that says the more hawkish voices in the region will probably accept the agreement in the long term, as it will help keep China’s aggression in check.
For those in the “hawk” camp, the number one long-term threat to regional security is China. Many think the strategic balance of power has been tilting too much in Beijing’s favour in the past decade, especially after China started rushing to build military bases in the South China Sea and using its navy to protect Chinese fishing vessels in disputed waters.
So, they believe any move to remind China it does not have a carte blanche to do what it wants in Southeast Asia is a good thing.
The only downside is that Australia may use its nuclear-powered submarines to bully Asean countries. If Canberra uses its nuclear submarines as a bargaining chip, it will simply turn public opinion in the region against Australia.
Implications for Australia-Asean relations
If anything, the Aukus move reinforced the widely held perception that Australia’s mantra of being “part of the region” is, in fact, “empty talk”. Australia has firmly signalled its intentions to put its Anglo allies in the US and Britain first.
Aukus also reinforces the view that Australia cannot be accepted as a regional partner or player. This, of course, is nothing new. For years, the Asean bloc has seen Australia as “deputy sheriff” to the US, though this view would not necessarily be shared in public.
So, while Aukus came as a surprise to many in the region, an alliance of this sort was probably bound to happen. It’s just that nobody expected it to happen so soon.
Authored by James Chin, Professor of Asian Studies, University of Tasmania